Outlining

Welcome to 2022.

Since it’s a new year, I figured it’s only fitting to start off the year with the dreaded O word.

If you’re a writer, you might have shipped yourself into one of two categories: plotter or pantser. And for some, plotting, outlining, structuring their work is a way of life. But for some others, they prefer to discover the story as they go along.

No way of doing things is right or wrong. There’s just what works and what doesn’t.

So why are we talking about outlining?

Great question!

The short answer is… Outlining helps.

Whether you’re a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid, outlining your work really does make the writing process easier.

An outline doesn’t have to be detailed. It can be as loose as you want. You can have a 40 page outline of your novel, or just have bullet points. You could create a chapter by chapter summary, or just a paragraph summary for the whole darn thing. The main point is, an outline gives some form of direction. It provides boundaries, and a goal to shoot for.

Think of it as a journey. You may not have decided on the route you’ll be taking when you start out, but you at least need to know where you’re going.

An outline provides that for you.

Now, simply because this post wouldn’t feel complete without practical, pointed tips đź‘€ , here are three simple ways to outline your work:

1. Bullet point the major stuff.

We’re talking plot points, ideas, places, events. Anything that most definitely has to happen should be on that list. Remember, keep it as loose or as detailed as is comfortable for you. Do this for the manuscript as a whole. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you could try doing it for each chapter as you write it.

2. Write a one-page summary.

Another way to outline is to write a 200 to 500 word summary of what you’re working on. This not only shows you where you’re going, it also shows you how much you actually know about what you’re working on… And how much more research you might need to do.

If you can gather the general gist of things concisely onto one page, then each sentence could become a chapter or a whole section in your book (though I wouldn’t advise the latter), and pantsers could still discovery write the details to their hearts content without dealing with so many episodes of writer’s block or losing interest in the story because they just can’t figure out exactly where it’s going.

3. Use a mind map.

You could do this by hand, or you could use a software like Scrivener that allows you to arrange and rearrange your thoughts. I personally prefer to do these things by hand. I use an A2 sketchpad and I’m constantly sticking and unsticking things and moving things about.

This method allows you to get all your thoughts down in one place and then pick them back up as you write. There’s no real structure to what goes where, you just know all of it goes in the story at some point or another,

And in parting, remember that writing tips are just that: tips. There are no real rules, there’s just what works and what doesn’t.


If you know of any other tips of tricks for outlining, share them in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, remember to like and share it with someone else who might benefit also.

Get feedback!

It is commonplace for new writers to be protective of their work. And there’s nothing wrong with that… except that it robs a writer of opportunities to improve their craft and story.

Feedback from peers and mentors is invaluable, especially in the early stages of your writing career.

When you open your work up to others you trust and admire, others with knowledge and experience in the craft, you put their expertise to work for you. Now, that’s priceless!

Some simple ways to get feedback include:

a. finding a mentor

b. finding a critique partner (or partners)

c. joining a writing group

d. sharing free content on your blog or social media (though I would only recommend this to those with a thick hide).

The honest truth is, getting feedback can be brutal sometimes… but the key is to pick out the useful, constructive advice, and run with it. In the end, it’s all about your success.

Character Entrance 5: Setting

This method of character intro is not so much about the character as it is about the setting. However, by dwelling on the setting, you shade the sketch of the character in the reader’s mind. The fascinating result you will accomplish through this intentional shading is that your character shines with a sense of familiarity later when he takes over as the subject of your story.


In a nutshell, this method does not explore the character’s physical description or thoughts or much of his actions. Yet, by focussing on the setting (place and time), your reader could reasonably guess the character’s appearance and personality. The exciting thing about this method is that it’s satisfying when readers discover they were right about who they thought your character was or would become.


The fantastic beauty of this character intro method lies in its ability to multitask between setting description and character intro. This is an excellent example of killing two birds with one stone.


What do you think about this writing key? Please tell us in the comments. Remember to keep a date with us next Monday for more keys to improve your storytelling skill.

Character Entrance 4: Report

This method of character introduction brings a character on stage by reporting how other characters perceive him. Therefore, who the character is or eventually becomes to the reader is who other characters in the story say he is.

This method works best when you want to introduce a public figure into your story. A celebrity, for example. Commonly, famous people have a public image usually known to everyone in the story world. And sometimes, even before the character steps into the story, his name or what other characters know him by glides through the story from the other characters’ viewpoints.

Also, Reporting as a Character Entrance method doesn’t have to be restricted to famous characters alone. As long as you want your readers to see the character for the first time through other characters, this method will serve you.

Example:

That night, when Christian Fall fell off the bridge, everyone who heard knew that it wasn’t because he had been drinking. They couldn’t remember a night when Christian wasn’t drunk, especially since Helen, his wife, died on their wedding night. Tonight, the little towners feel both guilty and relieved. The only financial and emotional charity case they have lay bloated on the riverbank. Dead. Now, they must find another. Because they must continue to be good people.

We would love to hear your views on this creative writing key in the comments. See you following Monday for the creative writing key on Character Entrance 5.

Character Entrance 3: Addressing The Reader

This method of character introduction is pretty simple – the character is the narrator of the story. So, your readers can only see the story (or that portion of the story) unfold from the narrating character’s viewpoint. In other words, you’re choosing to write your story from the first-person point of view.

Meanwhile, this creative writing key is about introducing the character (narrator) and not about story writing in general. In trying to explore this method of character introduction, the first thing you will notice is that from the very first word you will ever write in the story, you have relinquished your right to tell the story to this character. By extension, the character introduces themself into the story with the first-person narrative pronoun, I.

The common challenge most writers face with this character introduction method, especially amateur writers, is giving the character a distinctive voice. Your character should have his own words and his manner about them. He should speak like someone possessing his level of intelligence.

One major letdown you would give your readers by choosing to introduce a character through this method is to have the character speak like you (except you’re writing a memoir or autobiography. In which case, it wouldn’t be fiction anymore). To pull this method off involves a lot of unbecoming of yourself, and more of the assumption of the voice, quirks and mannerisms of the phantom you want your readers to see as reality with flesh and blood.

In this method, you don’t get to enjoy telling the story from a detached distance. You will find the dominant pronouns would be I, My, Our. If the character’s wife just died, it would be your wife who died. If he’s getting married, it’d be you at the altar. And pray he hasn’t found himself at gunpoint. Or at a divorce court, about to lose 50% of his assets. In all these cases, it would be you, and you must represent the character the way he would react in such situations for your readers to appreciate your storytelling.

We would love to hear your views on this creative writing key in the comments. See you next Monday for the creative writing key on Character Entrance 4.

Character Entrance 2: Action

It is safe to say that stories are about actions. Often in telling a story, it might be inevitable to explore the motivations and consequences of your characters’ actions. While this exploration might be essential, they only create contexts for your readers to perceive your character’s actions.

Since stories anchor largely on character actions, one interesting way to introduce a character is to show the character engaged in some Actions. The Actions don’t necessarily have to be something pivotal to the general story idea. It only needs to show one or more aspects of the character’s personality.

Example:

The man kept grunting, powerful left arm gripping the slender waist of the naked lady perched atop him on the sofa. He bounced her hips gently on his crotch, cupping her mouth like an overpowered victim. The cushions of the sofa rose and fell rhythmically to their weight. Gradually, the white habit he peeled off her skin slid from the sofa to join his black shirt on the floor. A Roman collar stuck out of his shirt’s neckline with a screaming whiteness.

While introducing a character through Description creates a mental picture, introduction through Actions creates a mental video in your reader’s mind.

HOWEVER! HOWEVER!!

Just like introduction through Description, choosing to introduce a character into your story through Actions should depend on what you want to accomplish. Your motive should also determine how much Action you reveal or withhold.

Book Example: (TAINTED by Xyvah M. Okoye)

A branch snapped, and Regan sailed on a wind current as his sister cheered below him, dancing to an inaudible tune. He smiled, dark hair swaying as he floated upside down, then did a quick somersault and landed gracefully on the grass, arms akimbo.

How do you perceive Xyvah’s Regan, and how do the actions in the above paragraph determine that? We would love to hear your views in the comments. See you next Monday for the creative writing key on Character Entrance 3.

Character Entrance

It is often the case for storytellers to drop a character into the story without considering the significance of such an introduction. As long as the story moves ahead, they believe the character works. 

But the experience is not always the same for the reader. Much like real-life, first impressions matter about story characters. How the reader perceives your characters depends on your intentional choices on what to reveal or withhold about them at the point of their entry into the story. 

Beginning from this key, we will explore 5 ways you can employ to effectively introduce a character. 

Character Entrance 1: Description

A straightforward Description is the most logical way to introduce a character. It is logical because your reader does not know the new guy you call John. And since books are not videos, you may need to tell/show your reader at the point of John’s entrance that, unlike most humans, John has 8 limbs. Description goes beyond the name to show the reader a bit of your characters’ appearance or what it seems like. In our example of John, you may not say it, but your reader already knows that John is likely not human despite having a human name.

HOWEVER! HOWEVER!!

The amount of Description you do at a character’s point of entry into the story should depend on what you hope to achieve. For example, if your interest is to inspire curiosity about John, you can end the Description at the point you mentioned 8 limbs. The incomplete information will leave your reader wondering what kind of animal John must be. 

If you’re particularly a mischievous writer, you can tell your reader when next they meet John in the story that he is an accident patient who, for some weird reason, uses two pairs of crutches. And John is human again.

Book Example

You will find a good application of Character Entrance by Description in Dan Brown’s introduction of Rachel Sexton in his novel, Deception Point

The woman was attractive, in her mid-thirties, wearing gray, pleated flannel pants, conservative flats, and an ivory Laura Ashley blouse. Her posture was straight—chin raised ever so slightly—not arrogant, just strong. The woman’s hair was light brown and fashioned in Washington’s most popular style—the “anchorwoman”—a lush feathering, curled under at the shoulders… long enough to be sexy, but short enough to remind you she was probably smarter than you.

Note that while Description may be a logical way to introduce a character, it does not necessarily make it the best. The best way to introduce a character depends on how you want to present the character to your reader. Keep a date with us next Monday for the creative writing key on Character Entrance 2.

The “Beginning” Lie (Part II)

Now that you know what story beginnings are, and how to craft one for your story, let’s look into one more likely misunderstanding you could have about beginnings just by the very nature of the word.

In the last creative writing key, I told you that every story runs on the wheels of time. And that is exactly what stories are. A chronology of events powered by the idea of causality. A story is like falling dominoes that do not tip backwards, only forwards. A push causes a fall that causes a push and so it continues until there are no more dominoes left standing. That’s a story.

Looking deeper into this very nature of stories, you’ll find another lie, or another likely misunderstanding you could have about the five Ws (Who, What, When, Where and Why) of how to begin a story. A story is a chronology, and since chronologies by their very nature already have beginnings, you cannot begin a story.

You cannot begin what already has a beginning.

I bet you’re thoroughly confused right now. And confused is exactly what I need you to be because confusion is an essential necessity if clarity must dawn. So, stay with me a little longer to understand fully our five-week long conversation on how to begin storytelling.

To clear your confusion, we will need to explain the difference between story and plot. You already know that a story is a chronology of events powered by causality. You should hold the image of falling dominoes in your mind. Plot, on the other hand, is what you do when you tell a story. What does this mean?

It simply means with the fall of the first domino, even the simplest mind knows how the story is going to end. Plot on the other hand, introduces a mystery to story by cloaking the end, and sometimes, the beginning. Therefore, the art of storytelling in it’s essential core, is plotting.

Much like story and it’s image of falling dominoes, plot conjures the image of a rail line or a number line which progresses from left to right, or diminishes from right to left. But unlike falling dominoes, a train can go from left to right or from right to left. And when the train is particularly happy and wants to scare it’s passengers, it finds a track switch. Also, in a number line, you either count from zero towards your right or towards your left. And when you’re particularly feeling like Einstein, you can backtrack with a subtraction or shoot ahead with a multiplication.

My point with all of this is that when you think of how to begin your storytelling, think of it as a question of plot, not a chronology. Stories (chronology) already have beginnings. It is the telling (plot) of the story (chronology) that you need to figure out how to begin.

And the five Ws is simply saying you can begin anywhere. You can start from the end and backtrack to the beginning. You can start from the beginning, jump to the end and backtrack to the middle. Simply put, you are free to be Einstein.

In summary, as a storyteller, you don’t begin a story. Stories already have beginnings. You begin a plot, and frame it with structure.

P.S:

We will discuss the storytelling element of structure in details soon.

The “Beginning” Lie (Part I)

I hate to break it to you right after the five long weeks I took to share with you the five W’s (Who, What, When, Where and Why) you can explore to begin writing your story. There is no such thing as a beginning to storytelling.

Yes! I’ve been lying to you all along.

Come to think of it, is there really a beginning to any story when even the dead end of all beginnings also assumes the existence of a character that predates the said beginning?

The hoax about beginnings occurred to me a few weeks ago while sharing ideas with a colleague on the spin-off series exploring the genesis of her latest fantasy series, Age Of The Anathema. I found that no matter how far behind we stretched into the series, there always seems to be a vague pre-story lying even farther behind.

I found that the idea of beginnings was a mirage. When I chase it down to where I thought it pooled, it jumps ahead into a dim section of stale history.

So, there is no beginning. The events of the last few weeks about storytelling beginnings were all a lie… But that’s only if your thoughts strayed to consider our conversations from this unfortunate perspective. Yeah, I lied to you, or I could be telling the truth.

You see, the point of today’s creative writing key is to call out this likely misunderstanding that you could have about the topic of how to begin writing your story.

When we talk about beginnings, we refer to the point at which the telling begins, not necessarily the genesis of the story. In the context of storytelling, the genesis and the beginning of your story mean two different things. While genesis is obsessed with finding the history, beginnings worry about What the first words of your story shall tell. Or about Whom they shall tell. Or about Where they tell. Or about When in time they tell. Or about Why they tell.

All things considered, I didn’t lie to you about how you could begin your story. Everything I told you only becomes a lie if the concept of Beginning and Genesis means the same thing to you.

So, I take back my words, there is a beginning to all storytelling. The pre-story histories are important to provide the backstory and rationale for the characters’ choices and actions.

However, I think there is no such thing as Genesis. And if there is, it’s the part of a story that can’t be told by man but God. For he alone knows what it means to exist without having begun. The idea of genesis is an idea of stories that predate time, and no man tells a story without running on the wheels of time. God is not man. Fortunately he was called an author somewhere in the Bible. But even his genesis story started with the creation of time and not the timeless age from which he emerged.

Beginning With “Why?”

As a way to begin a story, “Why” is best applied if the priority of your story idea is about the Reason or Meaning of what happened. In the end, every story explores why sometime, something happened to some people where it did. But amongst all these elements, some story ideas focus on the Reason or Meaning behind events as their main priority. In such a scenario, begin your story with the question “Why?”

Narrowing your focus to the “Why” of a Reason-inspired story idea makes the task of beginning the story less stressful.

When you have answered the question of “Why” correctly, you can easily select the measures and combinations of the remaining four elements (Who, When, Where, and What) that best emphasise the focus and priority of your story – The Reason or Meaning.

HOWEVER! HOWEVER!!

Your story idea prioritises on “Why” (Reason or Meaning) does not mean that you can downplay the other elements. There is a Reason or Meaning because in the first place, something happened to someone, sometime, somewhere. The point of this creative writing key is to solve the puzzle of beginning a story idea focused on investigating the Reason or Meaning of an event, not to score the element of “Why” as more important than the others.

EXAMPLE

“Staring at the high ceiling of the office, Detective Boris could not say how the 87-year-old President hung himself… or why it seems like he did.”

One prominent feature of beginnings with “Why” is that they either present a puzzle to be solved or present the solved puzzle. Whichever form it chooses depends on the part of the story plot from which you wish to start writing.